top of page
INTERVIEW WITH JAMES SCHUYLER
March 9, 1990, Chelsea Hotel NYC
James Schyler at his writing desk, The Chelsea Hotel, circa 1989. Photo by Chris Felver.
Q: I want to ask about your daily routine. What time do you get up in the morning?
A: Very, very early. Well before sunrise. It varies.
Q: And what do you do then?
A: Drink coffee and put on the weather channel. I've discovered some charming programs on cable TV: My Three Sons, Bewitched. One gets a little tired of them after a while. I'm sort of giving up on them now. And I go out and get the New York Times.
Q: We're now up to about six-thirty.
A: Well, now that I no longer live alone, at that point I sometimes go back to sleep. My friend Artie likes to stay up very late, playing cards or shooting pool with his friends, so he sleeps in. But I also like to write very early in the day. It's so quiet, the phone never rings. You don't have any sounds at all.
Q: Do you write by longhand or use a typewriter?
A: Here I use a typewriter. I do write in longhand if I go out to the country. When I went to the friary at Little Portion recently, I kept a notebook.
Q: Do you write with a pencil or a pen?
A: I use a pen. I don't know why but I'm quite averse to writing with a pencil. I can never get one that's dark enough.
Q: What have you written most recently?
A: I wrote a three-page poem recently.
Q: Was it a skinny poem?
A: Not especially. It has some hips and bosoms here and there.
Q: I keep noticing in the small press and little magazines that come across my desk that there seems to be a whole school of young poets writing skinny poems ‡ la James Schuyler.
A: Oh, Raymond, I don't see what's so wrong with that.
Q: I always get the impression that it takes you about as much time to write the poems as it does to type them out. Almost as if they're spoken into the typewriter, with not a great deal of laboring.
A: That's both true and not true. I do an awful lot of fussing. That doesn't mean rewriting. Well, it may mean rewriting just little bits. Or getting strung out where a line turns. I can't keep at it indefinitely because after a point it all goes dead, so I just turn the page facedown. I used to leave it like that for a long time. Now I don't. I come back to it in a matter of days.
Q: If you change something in one area does it mean you have to adjust it in another, or are they local revisions.
A: It's usually more local. But I don't do any "editing" as such. I used to show poems to Kenneth Koch and he would invariably say, "Jimmy, I like it very much, but have you thought about leaving off the last line?" It got to where this was the one thing he always said. So frequently I would chop off the last few lines to a poem and end it that way.
Q: Are you currently keeping a diary?
A: I just started again. I hadn't in quite a while.
Q: What prompted you to do this?
A: The Yale Review is publishing excerpts from my 1988 diary. You know what my diaries are like—they're mostly about looking out the window. A few descriptions of having dinner with you at Ninth Street.
Q: I just can't seem to keep a diary with any consistency.
A: The important thing is not to become discouraged if you miss a few days, or a week, or even a few months. It's only when you begin missing entire years that you should become concerned.
Q: So your mornings are reserved for writing?
A: I have written and do write in the afternoon, though.
Q: And at night, too?
A: Hardly ever.
Q: Do you ever force yourself to sit down and write for the sake of writing—to see what comes out—or do you know exactly what you're going to do when you sit down to write?
A: I don't think I ever know exactly what I'm going to do about anything. If I have any idea about what I'm going to write it's probably just the beginning of a line, or a word.
Q: At what point did you first think about becoming a writer?
A: As an adolescent the thing I most seriously wanted to be was an architect, although I had no particular gift in that direction. I was a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. But reading is what I did most of, poetry and prose. In the back of our house was a gully, a slightly wild area, where I had a tent for the summer. And I was reading a book called Unforgotten Years, by Logan Pearcal Smith. He told how Whitman used to come to their house in Philadelphia from Camden, and what it was like—how Whitman used to sit in the outhouse singing "Old Jim Crow." But then he says the idea suddenly entered his mind that maybe someday he too could be a writer. And I looked up from the book to the landscape outside and it all sort of shimmered.
Q: So has being a writer always kept that aura of fantasy or idealism about it for you?
A: What aura of fantasy? It all seems very real to me.
Q: I mean that it's magical—you're creating something that did not exist before.
A: Oh yes, very much so.
Q: So it's been a satisfying decision for you.
A [soberly]: It's been very difficult much of the time.
Q: If you hadn't become a writer what might you have done?
A: I have no idea. I might have been some kind of noncreative writer, in advertising maybe.
Q: Would you have come to New York anyway?
A: Oh yes. Where would you go? When I was in high school I used to buy the New Yorker. I would read the stories and essays, but even more avidly I would read the listings of all the nightclubs, El Morocco and the like.
Q: When did you first meet someone your own age who you considered a fellow writer?
A: My friend Bill Aalto, and through him I met Chester Kallman, who was my real close buddy. For Bill writing was very much tied up in politics. He was a Communist, and we had terrible fights about it. To me Stalin had become a terrible monster. I used to pick up the Daily Worker and turn to the literary column, which was written by a man named Dixie Putnam. And he would say things like, "With all her bourgeois values it's natural that Virginia Woolf would go crazy and drown herself." Argh! And of course through Chester I met W. H. Auden, who was a very intimidating person.
Q: Was he stern?
A: No, not at all. He was a sweetie. But it was impossible not to be in awe of someone so famous for his writing.
Q: What was he working on when you first met him?
A: He was writing "The Sea and the Mirror." Also the Age of Anxiety, which he wanted to dedicate to me and to Bill, but he didn't, because Chester had a furious fight with him, saying Auden was always trying to take things away from him and steal his friends. Later I realized I was just as glad that the Age of Anxiety wasn't dedicated to me. I had enough problems by then.
Q: What sort of writer was Chester Kallman?
A: I'm afraid as a writer Chester was very constipated. He was most productive when he was collaborating with Auden on those libretti. Wystan was not taking any hocus-pocus about people not getting down to work. He got up every morning around eight, popped his amphetamine, and got right to it. Wystan was also very strict with Chester about his drinking. Wystan believed you had two martinis before dinner and then just wine after that. But I was close with Chester for only a very few years. One of his great interests was cooking. That was what he most cared about.
Q: He was an excellent cook?
A: Well, opinions varied on that. I would say sometimes. He was a somewhat terrifying cook because he was never very clean. You would look into the icebox and things would be growing. I remember once we were living together in Ischia where there wasn't very much water to wash your hands. He was making old-fashioned southern biscuits, and they turned out charcoal gray.
Q: So Chester was an important, early figure for you?
Q: At what point did you begin to feel there was a scene in New York among writers—the New York School.
A: It wasn't until I met John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara that I had a kind of kinship in a writing way, which I never really had with Chester, who was more interested in art, or listening to and attending the opera. Then I met John and Frank, who were at Harvard, along with Kenneth Koch and Kenward Elmslie. And that was marvelous.
Q: Do you ever wonder what kind of a poet Frank O'Hara would have been had he lived, because I always wonder about that.
A: Oh, I don't know. What I wondered about was what would happen with Frank's drinking. His alcoholism was so far advanced, the last few times I saw him I couldn't believe it. He was red-eyed and looked awful. Frank used to be very handsome. And his health was deteriorating, which also had to do with his having been shot.
Q: Frank O'Hara was shot?
A: Yes, he was shot in the hip on West Forty-ninth Street in a mugging by some young kids. The bullet couldn't be taken out, and it moved around in him. It was a situation of great concern.
Q: Some people consider his accidental death a result of his drinking.
A: I don't know, I wasn't there. It was a terrific shock for many, many people. I didn't see much of Frank from the time I began living in Southampton. Our paths rarely crossed, except at parties. Frank had this terrific social life—he went to hundreds of parties.
Q: Do find yourself thinking about Frank, or the past, very much, or do you seldom give it a thought?
A: I give it a thought but not a great deal. Whenever people are writing about Frank they interview me, and I'm aware that I remember much less than I did a few years ago. Ten or more years ago I made some tapes for Peter Schjeldahl and I know I had much more information then than I could dig up now.
Q: You never had the desire to write a memoir of that period?
A: I don't think so. I've thought of it but . . . A certain kind of diary would have been more interesting, but it would never have been the sort of diary that I would have kept.
Q: How did the writing for Artnews come about?
A: Fairfield Porter was writing for Artnews. Elaine de Kooning and Robert Guest were working there for a while. At one point Fairfield knew they needed a new reviewer, and they suggested Frank. But Frank was working at the MoMA and there was a conflict of interest, so I applied for the job. I worked under Tom Hess, a wonderful man. He was brisk and snappy.
Q: Did they assign the exhibitions you were to review?
A: No, I got to select the shows I reviewed. On occasion I did write some bad reviews, and I regretted it afterwards. At a cocktail party John Button once referred to "Schuyler's scorn." The artists weren't worth being so scornful about. I could have just dealt with it very briefly and not made as if they were doing something terrible by not being better painters than they were.
Q: How do you feel about the art world then as compared to now?
A: I knew the art world then very well, and I don't know it at all now, except for a few people, so I can't compare it.
Q: In those days who would you bounce ideas off of about art? Fairfield?
A: I think Frank, mostly. Fairfield too, and sometimes John. But Frank and I lived together for a number of years. Frank was always talking and one got caught up in it. If you didn't believe that Helen Frankenthaler—or whoever it was he was touting that month—was the greatest thing since Titian, you were in for quite the verbal barrage.
Q: How did you feel about the Beats when they came along?
A: I didn't think anything much.
Q: Did you read "Howl" at the time?
A: I wanted to, but I was having a nervous breakdown and Frank wouldn't let me.
Q: Did you read On the Road?
A: Yes, I reviewed it at the time.
Q: What did you say?
A: I said it was like a boy's book.
Q: Would you say John Ashbery is the writer whom you've felt closest to through the years?
A: Yes, much.
Q: Has John always been pretty much the same person he is now?
A: Oh, I think he's ripened a bit . . .
Q: Was he always so charismatic? People are so deferring to John, even his closest friends.
A: No, I don't think he had any charisma at all when I first knew him. He would usually eat dinner then head for the nearest sofa and fall asleep with his back to the room. Not a very charismatic way to behave. He was charismatic for the few of us who knew who John was, from the beginning—he was for me, actually, yes. Frank O'Hara had much more charisma. He had so much social flourish he could talk to anyone.
Q: How did your collaboration with John Ashbery on the novel A Nest of Ninnies come about?
A: We started that in the backseat of a car, driving in from Southampton one afternoon. We didn't care for the people we were riding with. We didn't want to be rude, so we wrote a novel.
Q: You began by swapping sentences?
A: Yes, then paragraphs, and finally chapters, I think.
Q: What year was that?
A: 1961, I think. John had come out to visit for a weekend. We were walking along the beach at sunset, heading for a cocktail party. The sun was casting those extraordinary technicolor effects on the sea and sky. John turned to me and said, "I always feel so embarrassed by these gaudy displays of nature." I didn't feel embarrassed at all.
Q: I notice you subscribe to Country Life. What do you look at in the magazine?
A: Every house ad. Pretty much everything except the advertising in small type in the back. I don't read the text of all the articles. I love the columns by Frank Davis on the art auctions. That old devil fascinates me. He's a hundred years old. He's always putting in remarks about what a disagreeable painter Picasso is. And I read the gardening articles. I like Christopher Lloyd quite a lot. If you read him over a period of years he gets a bit repetitious. I get a little tired of hearing about how to root cuttings every year.
Q: Do you ever wish you still had a garden?
A: I'd love to, yes, to be outside of the city. Because I've written about plants and flowers so much people get the impression I was a gardener, but I wasn’t. I was a gardening slave when I was a kid, being forced to weed or hoe or mow. So I'm very ambivalent about the actual physical work of gardening. The hell, I'd rather read about it.
Q: What other magazines do you look at regularly?
A: The one I read most seriously is the Times Literary Supplement. I'm sent a subscription to the New Yorker every year but there's not much in it I actually read. The movie reviews by Pauline Kael, and Whitney Baillant, their jazz critic, I like very much. Otherwise I don't read much else in it.
Q: It's so boring. I always find myself in the middle of some three-part article about yams.
A: Yes. Would they were on yams.
Q: Is reading your main activity in the afternoon?
A: Well, up till Hawaii Five-0 comes on at four.
Q: You were watching Santa Barbara for a while.
A: Oh, not for very long. Only a few months.
Q: You're not currently watching any soap operas?
A: I don't watch any, no. They can really make you go cross-eyed before a very short while.
Q: Do you eat out every night?
A: Not by any means. Every other night, maybe.
Q: What time do you usually go to bed at night?
A: It depends whether I go out or not. Nine-thirty if I'm staying home.
Q: Recently, when you were assembling your Selected Poems, did you see any progression in your work, thematically or otherwise, that you hadn't seen before?
A: I really wasn't looking at it in that way. It was an odd experience because I had never reread my own poems. I never gave poetry readings until maybe a year or two ago, so once the book was out I never went back and looked at them.
A: Oh, I had a number of reasons—not wanting to be influenced by what I wrote. But one thing I learned to my horror is that there are certain words that I thought I'd used once, but I've used a number of times. And I thought I'd very much overdone the business of having a line end with the article "the." That seemed kind of silly to me.
Q: Do you ever have an experience with a poem where you are left standing completely outside of it, having no connection or relation to it?
A: I think I know what you mean, and if the answer is yes, then it's been rarely. I don't think I ever completely lost touch with anything I wrote. But when Simon Pettet was collecting my art reviews and art writings I was very surprised at some of the things he would read to me from them that were totally unfamiliar, as if by someone else. I had no recollection of writing them at all.
Raymond Foye and James Schuyler, The Chelsea
Hotel, c. 1989. Photo by Jeannette Montgomery-Barron
bottom of page